Cliven Bundy Stands Trial, Along with the Government’s Power to Police Public Lands

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Cliven BundyGeorge Frey / Getty Images

In the Spring of 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and several other ranchers waged a tense standoff with agents from the Bureau of Land Management. While no shots were fired, supporters of the ranchers did train their guns on the federal employees. The dispute was relatively clear-cut: Bundy felt it was his right to graze his cattle on federal lands and the government did not. 

That disagreement is just now coming to a head, as the first of three trials of the Bundys and his cohorts begin. Cliven is personally charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S.; assault on a federal officer with a deadly weapon; use and carry of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence; interference with commerce by extortion; obstruction of the administration of justice; and aiding and abetting. Cliven's trial is expected to begin in coming weeks, but jury selection is now underway in the first trial from the standoff, which concerns six men who brought weapons to the Bundy ranch and trained them on BLM employees.

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Much has been made about the Bundy fiasco in terms of the use of guns (the assault charges), but what this trial could mean in the long term for public lands is just as important. “I would frame it more in terms of one more step in this attack on the public land system,” says Whit Fosburgh, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “You see that attack manifest in different ways.” 

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Cliven Bundy sees his actions as a protest against the Bureau of Land Management, who forced the purchase of his family lands back in 1993 due to the listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species. Many Republicans side with Bundy in their belief that this designation represents the BLM overstepping its governmental authority. Soon after Bundy's arrest, Rand Paul (R-KY) said on Fox News, "There is a legitimate constitutional question here about whether the state should be in charge of endangered species or whether the federal government should be."

If the government loses in this trial, conservationists fear it would set a precedent for future court rulings that could diminish the power of law enforcement on federal lands, undoing in the judicial branch what a bill by Utah representative Jason Chaffetz, H.R. 622 — with the goal to "terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management" — looks to do legislatively.

“I had the same feeling when they got let off in Oregon,” says Fosburgh, referring to the acquittal of Ammon Bundy and his group of supporters last year, who occupied a national wildlife refuge in the state. “The rule of law has got to apply here. Just because you don’t like the law does not give you the license to ignore it.”

The first of three trials starts next week, with jury selection expected to take several days. Orville Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Eric Parker, Steven Stewart, and Richard Lovelein are each charged with 10 counts including conspiracy and assault on a federal officer. Each has pleaded not guilty. After this first trial is concluded, the second one, which involves Cliven Bundy himself and two of his sons, may begin. The third trial includes two Bundy relatives. The trials, involving a total of 19 defendants, will take several months. Check back here for regular updates.

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